By Amie Ferris-Rotman
KOROLYOV, Russia (Reuters) - A Russian Soyuz spacecraft containing an international trio of astronauts who oversaw the final assembly stage of a $100 billion space station landed safely on Kazakhstan's steppe on Wednesday.
Russian Oleg Kotov, NASA's Timothy Creamer and Japan's Soichi Noguchi arrived near the town of Zhezkazgan as planned, at 0725 Moscow time (0325 GMT), Russia's Mission Control outside Moscow said.
"There has been a soft landing," the announcer said to applause from observers in the gold-lined, Soviet-era Mission Control building.
Spectators watched the Soyuz TMA-17 enter the atmosphere at a height of 99.9 km (62 miles) above Egypt on large plasma screens, before it fired across the Caspian Sea and then hung from a red and white parachute above the Kazakh steppe.
The astronauts, commanded by Kotov, left Earth in December for the 16-nation International Space Station (ISS), where they conducted a series of experiments and completed the station, which had been under construction for more than a decade.
Under blazing sunshine, Kotov gave a thumbs-up signal to medics as they draped a blanket around his shoulders. The Russian cosmonaut was handed a large green apple, which he gently tossed into the air before taking a bite.
"The astronauts are smiling and I'm glad we managed to uphold tradition by giving an apple to each of the crew," Igor Ushakov, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, told reporters at Mission Control.
Kotov's seven-year-old son, Dmitry, watched the landing from Mission Control with his mother. "It went well, didn't it?" he said.
Live pictures beamed in from the landing site showed medics wiping sweat from Noguchi's forehead against a backdrop of Russian and Kazakh flags.
"It's great to see the crew back on Mother Earth. Now we have three empty spaces on the International Space Station," said NASA's Michael Baker, a former astronaut currently assigned as ISS program manager for international crew operations.
Russia will ferry all crews to the ISS aboard its single-use Soyuz spaceships after the U.S. space agency NASA mothballs its shuttle fleet by the end of this year.
Earlier this year, Russia announced a halt to space tourism to free capacity for ISS flights. It has said it plans to double the number of launches to four this year as permanent crews of professionals aboard the expanded ISS are set to rise to six.
A Soyuz carrying U.S. astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Korniyenko docked with the ISS in April, replacing a Russian-U.S. duo who returned to Earth in March.
They will be joined by two U.S. astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut on June 18.
(Writing by Robin Paxton in Almaty, editing by Jon Boyle)